FORT WAYNE – When his father, Tech. Sgt. Roy DeWitt Prater, was assigned to Vietnam in October 1971, Dennis Prater was only 13, but he knew it was a dangerous assignment.
Until then, his father had held glamorous positions with the Air Force in places like Panama and Florida, where he helped recover space capsules and astronauts returning from space.
But Dennis and his two sisters had heard their father tell their mother of the danger. Planes were being shot down every day, and his job would be to rescue the downed pilots. There was a good chance he wouldn’t come back, he told his wife.
After he left, Prater says, “Our mother would pray nightly with us, asking God to watch over him and protect him.”
In April 1972, the terrible news came. Roy Prater’s helicopter had been shot down during a massive mission, called BAT 21, to rescue a lieutenant colonel whose plane had been shot down. Prater’s helicopter had exploded in the air and crashed on its side. No one was seen getting out, and the wreckage had burned for three days.
A week later, the family held a memorial service for Prater in Columbia City.
Prater, who was awarded the Silver Star, Purple Heart and Air Medal with three Oak Leaf Clusters, was listed as missing in action, and though his family knew deep down he had been killed, they hoped against hope that perhaps he had escaped the crash and somehow gotten away. They watched news footage of American soldiers taken prisoner, looking for his face.
They never saw him, and his body was never found. Roy Prater’s father had been killed when his ship was sunk during World War II, and his remains were never found.
Dennis Prater went on to lead a life eerily similar to that of his father. Then, in 1997, 25 years after Prater’s helicopter was shot down, word came that remains of the crew of a helicopter had been found, and three were confirmed as members of Prater’s Jolly Green 67. It was presumed that unidentified remains belonged to other members of the crew, so a memorial service was held at Arlington National Cemetery, where the names of all six crew members were placed on a grave marker.
The surviving family members – Prater’s wife had since died of cancer – finally had some closure.
Then, in March, Dennis Prater was notified that the remains of his father had been positively identified using DNA. Prater was asked when he wanted his father’s remains returned. So he chose this week.
The remains will be returned to Columbia City on Thursday, accompanied by a state police motorcycle escort and a team of Patriot Guard Riders. On Saturday, the day before Father’s Day, Prater’s remains will be laid to rest next to his wife.
“It’s bittersweet,” Prater said. “We’re happy it’s really him. He’s finally coming home. He’ll be buried next to our mother’s grave. But it’s bitter because we’ve got to relive it all again.”
For most people, when someone is killed, within three days it is over and life goes on, Prater said.
“When it first happened, it was a tragedy, and we had a memorial service,” Prater said. Then there was the service at Arlington. “And now we have to go through it all again. It’s very emotional. It’s a good thing, but it’s also hard.”
The final chapter in his father’s odyssey is meant to have a different focus, though, Prater says.
“He is finally coming home. We’re not saying goodbye. We’re welcoming him home this time,” 38 years after he died.